ITSY BITSY GLOSSARY
Oyaji : literally 'old man', but also an affectionate way for a son to address his father
Dejima : the old Dutch trading post that only Dutch merchants ships could sail into
Hanten : padded coat for winter
Daishou: long and short set of swords


Meiji 4
December 1871

The weather turned frigid, and Kenshin was glad they had erected the shutters around the house weeks beforehand.

Otetsudai-san plied them with sweet corn porridge at breakfast, and she also brought Yukishiro-san the day's copy of Yokohama Daily News.

"Our nation's first real newspaper modeled after the Western style," Yukishiro-san had explained one morning. "In that it reports on both domestic and foreign occurrences. It's quite new."

"Oyaji's been receiving it for a few months now," Enishi added. "It's incredibly dense and far too wordy."

"And yet, I do notice you read it after I'm finished with it," Yukishiro-san murmured, and Enishi had muttered something and turned back to his breakfast.

That morning though, Enishi crowded right next to his father as he studied the first page.

"So it's not a real sword ban," Enishi announced to everyone. "It's more of a… sword encouragement."

"Sword encouragement?" Tomoe echoed.

"A discouragement, rather," Yukishiro-san clarified. "In that samurai are discouraged from wearing their swords, aside from those ceremonial occasions where they're necessary, as such things are considered barbaric and unseemly to the Western nations."

Kenshin frowned into his sweet corn porridge. "They used those words? 'Barbaric' and 'unseemly'?"

"What's 'barbaric', Touchan?" Kenichi looked at him. "Touchan, what is that?"

"It's what the Westerners call anything they don't have the wits to understand," Hiko muttered over the rim of his teacup. "Obviously the new government is eager to emulate their narrow-mindedness."

"Eager to attract their favor, more likely," Tomoe put in. "Eager to appear more like them in the hopes of being treated as equals."

"Which will never happen." Hiko scoffed. "The Westerners already have their opinion of us well-established. Falling all over ourselves to throw away our culture in favor of theirs will simply say to them that we have no pride or resolve."

"How do you know what they think of us?" Enishi scowled. "You only saw them that one time in Dejima, which was a long time ago and I doubt you even spoke to them, and the rest of us have never seen them."

"I saw a few of them during the war." Kenshin set his spoon down. "There was an ambassador. A few military commanders that we had allied ourselves with here and there."

He remembered they had been very tall and impossibly ruddy, with hairy faces. As for their clothing or hairstyles, well, Kenshin hadn't really been paying attention to such things back then.

"Did you speak to them?" Enishi demanded.

"I don't speak any of their languages." A small smile flitted across Kenshin's mouth. "And I only saw them from a distance anyway. No one thought to introduce us."

"I'm sure there is at least some truth in what Hiko-san says." Tomoe refilled everyone's tea. "We should obviously beware of casting away too much of who we are." Her eyes turned to Kenshin. "At the same time, there was a great deal that was well worth casting away. That was at the heart of the war, was it not?"

Kenshin nodded and tucked his hands into the sleeves of his padded hanten, glad for both the warmth of the hearth and the family gathered around him.

"It won't be a lack of pride or resolve that has the new government looking to emulate the West," he said. "We've seen their weapons. We know what they've done in China."

He and Shishio had talked of similar things, had they not? The memory was blurred through a haze of a sake-soaked evening and softened by the passage of time, but they had talked about Western colonization and weapons and the price of allying themselves with the Western powers.

"So we have to be like them so we're not crushed by them?" Enishi said through a mouthful of porridge.

"Your father remembers the Black Ships," Hiko said darkly, gesturing with his head towards Yukishiro-san. "And so do I."

"There doesn't have to be open war, Enishi." Tomoe blew the steam from her own tea, sipped it, and set the cup down again. "Nor even the threat of it. The Westerners' weapons are more sophisticated, and their numbers far greater than ours. The facts alone make it clear that a different approach is necessary."

"I do remember the Black Ships," Yukishiro-san murmured, and then:

"Breaking the halcyon slumber
of the Pacific;
The steam-powered ships,
a mere four boats are enough
to make us lose sleep at night."

Enishi blinked. "Did you write that?"

The merest wrinkle of an eyebrow - the closest Yukishiro-san would ever get to a scowl - briefly marred the man's face.

"No. The poem could be found everywhere back then. How could I not memorize such a thing?"

Hiko's scowl was everything Yukishiro-san's quirked eyebrow had hinted at. "My point was that there is a difference between adopting modern military equipment and tactics as a means of self-preservation and discarding everything about who we are as a people in order to placate Western observers."

Kenichi stirred his porridge lazily with his spoon, and might have dipped his fingers in it if Kenshin hadn't given him a knowing look.

Clearly, his son had no interest in Western observers or their modern military equipment.

Hiko snorted. "What does it matter how people dress or wear their hair? How important is that in the face of an imbalance of real power?"

Yukishiro-san's fingers strayed, seemingly subconsciously, to the back of his head where his long ponytail had been, before abruptly picking up the newspaper once again.

"There's nothing in the edict about how we dress," Enishi pointed out. "It's all about the 'barbaric' and 'unseemly' sword discouragement."

"I suppose there is a certain barbarism in killing scores of men with a sword," Kenshin murmured. "But is it any more or less barbaric than the ability to kill hundreds of men with one cannon or thousands with a single ironclad?"

"Less barbaric, by far." Hiko's tone was surly. "When a man meets another man face-to-face with a sword, he can see clearly who he is fighting and measure his worth in combat. There is no honor in killing with machines, never having had the opportunity to see your opponent as a man." Hiko shook his head in disgust. "It cheapens life and death, and it makes combat senseless."

"Well, perhaps members of our new government will have the opportunity to discuss such things with the Western powers." Yukishiro-san looked up from the newspaper. "All forty-eight members of the Iwakura Mission are leaving for America within the week." He glanced at Kenshin. "Including your mentor, Katsura Kogoro-san."

"The guy who gave us the rice," Enishi said, and off his father's look, added, "Yeah, I know he did more than that. But we ate the rice."

Kenshin inhaled quietly.

He had sudden visions of an endless stream of visitors to the Yukishiro household - no longer bound by Katsura's promise to leave Kenshin undisturbed - and quite possibly up to Mount Atago, even. He wouldn't be that terribly hard to find if someone were sufficiently motivated.

"And how is the government meat to function in the absence of its most important members?" Hiko inquired with an arched eyebrow. "I can't imagine they'll be gone for less than a year. More likely two or three, depending on what they hope to achieve."

"Who else is going?" Tomoe asked, her eyes on Yukishiro-san.

"Okubo Toshimichi-san, for one," Yukishiro-san said. "Along with other high-ranking officials, several scholars, and even some students. Including five young women, who will stay in America for some time to be educated." He set the newspaper down. "Our world is changing, indeed."

"I'm surprised Kamiya-san isn't sending Kaoru off to be educated then." Enishi slurped down the last of his porridge. "He feels women are capable of achieving everything men can, after all."

"Perhaps Kamiya-san doesn't want to send away his only daughter?" Kenshin said, his gaze lingering on his only son (who had managed to surreptitiously dip his fingers into the porridge). "Perhaps that's too much to ask of any father."

Hiko suddenly seemed quite preoccupied with his own porridge.

"I'm rather glad you didn't send me, Otousan," Tomoe murmured. "I'd much rather remain with my family than explore America."

"Married women would not even be a consideration," Yukishiro-san replied. "It would be unseemly to separate a mother from her children."

Enishi nodded, looking just a bit too smug. "Barbaric, even."

"I'm going to separate myself from this conversation shortly," Kenshin said abruptly, "and brave the terrible cold."

Tomoe looked at him.

"It's been some time since I've seen Katsura-san," Kenshin explained. "And I'd like to see him once more before he leaves."

After breakfast, Kenshin washed up, bundled up into his heaviest kimono and warmest hanten, and still ended up flagging a rickshaw halfway down the street. It was far too cold to walk the long distance to the upper class samurai-turned-government district of Kudankita. He was almost surprised his breath wasn't freezing directly on the air.

Perhaps not the most auspicious of days to visit Katsura, but there was only so much time left.

Before long, he was admitted into the (far more heavily-guarded) manor that now served as one of the new government's headquarters. There would be no sitting in a pleasant outdoor tea pavilion this time; a servant led him directly inside the building, where he was quickly served a pot of tea to warm him up while waiting to see if Katsura was accepting visitors.

"Your name still holds weight, Himura-san," the servant told him in a low voice on returning only a few moments later. "Katsura-sama is eager to see you."

They wended through a series of long hallways, up a flight and stairs, and again through more hallways until Kenshin was shown into a sparsely, but carefully decorated room that had clearly been repurposed as a tailor's suite if the rolls upon rolls of dark fabrics were anything to go by.

"Himura." The pleasure in Katsura's voice was as obvious as it was genuine. "I'd hoped to see you again before I left. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"The news of the Iwakura Mission, naturally," Kenshin replied. "I realized I only had so much time."

Katsura looked healthier, less exhausted, than the last time Kenshin had seen him. He had also cut his hair short and his daisho were nowhere to be seen. He was dressed in what appeared to be a Western-style suit, and a tailor bustled around him, pinning and tucking, several pins clamped between his lips.

A changing world, indeed.

"You look well," Kenshin offered, suddenly very conscious - though not at all embarrassed - of his own appearance. "Different. But well."

"And you look the same as always." Katsura smiled. "It's good to see that some things can be relied upon to remain pleasantly unchanged."

"Well." Kenshin gestured to his low ponytail. "I'm wearing my hair differently now."

Katsura laughed softly and gestured towards a comfortable-looking zabuton cushion on the floor. "Please sit. I hope you don't mind having this conversation while the tailor finishes his work. I need everything to be ready for the journey, and there's only so much time before we sail."

"Of course."

Kenshin slid his sword from his belt and seated himself on the cushion. A woman drifted quietly into the room with a tea tray, serving Kenshin a steaming cup of jasmine tea before melting away just as quietly.

"And what is the purpose of this Iwakura Mission?" He looked up at Katsura. "The newspaper was… very zealous in its explanation of who was attending the mission, but not so much the point of it."

"There are several aims." Katsura lifted his arms at the tailor's instruction and continued speaking as the man marked and pinned. "First and foremost, we want to study the workings of Western societies. Their governments, militaries, schools, cities, everything." He gave Kenshin a significant look. "Of course, interwoven with that is the objective of getting the West to see us as equals. To have them recognize the Meiji government as legitimate and modern, and to open formal diplomatic ties with us."

Kenshin lifted the teacup and inhaled the delicate scent of warm jasmine.

"And, perhaps most importantly of all," Katsura went on as the tailor flitted around him, "we hope to address several of the treaties made during the time of the Bakufu." He frowned deeply. "They are unworthy of compliance by any country worthy of consideration. We had no choice but to comply before; we were quite literally held at gunpoint. But now…" He trailed off.

"But now we have to hold our own as a fledgling country before the Western powers?" Kenshin suggested. "Before they decide that we're, perhaps, not worthy of such esteem?"

"It's more than that, Himura." Katsura shook his head. "We have to show them that we are worthy of that esteem. That they would be wrong to force us to abide by unequal and undignified treaties, and that we are men worthy of every bit as much respect as they are."

"It sounds as if you and the rest of the envoy have quite a bit of work ahead." A small smile tugged at the corners of Kenshin's mouth. "This Iwakura Mission might keep you out of the country for years."

"No more than two, if all goes as planned." Katsura returned the smile, somewhat tightly. "We're planning to visit America first - to give a better accounting of ourselves than we did to Commodore Perry all those years ago. And then, on to Europe."

"Ah."

Kenshin would never see any of these countries - oceans away and so completely foreign - and for a brief moment, he wondered what such a voyage would even be like. To be away from Japan for years, away from a country and a people he had quite literally shed blood for.

He found it almost impossible to fathom.

"I wish you the very best of luck, Katsura-san," Kenshin said. "Don't stay away for too long though."

"I won't." Katsura nodded, his smile anticipatory once more. "I couldn't possibly. I have too many people relying upon me here."

Kenshin inclined his head slightly. "Indeed. This country has come to rely on your guidance. I don't imagine that changing any time soon."

A week later, the Iwakura Mission departed from Yokohama on the SS America.

While Kenshin wasn't able to go to Yokohama to see what the Yokohama Daily News described as the largest paddle-wheel steamship in the world, the newspaper did include a very detailed illustration.

"Rather like the Black Ships," Yukishiro-san mused over breakfast. "Though with fewer sails. I suspect the Westerners have already modernized their modern ships."

"Fewer cannons as well," Hiko observed. "Modern, indeed."

"Cannons aren't exactly in keeping with diplomatic missions," Tomoe pointed out. "And this is in all respects a diplomatic endeavor."

"Western diplomacy is always underscored by the threat of violence," Hiko countered. "Better to be prepared for that and deal with them accordingly."

Kenshin raised an eyebrow and was about to reply, but pivoted instead. "We should visit Yokohama sometime to see the steamships coming into the harbor."

"I want to see steamships, Touchan." Kenichi had crouched down next to Yukishiro-san to examine the illustration in the newspaper, but he looked over at Kenshin now. "I want to ride a steamship."

Enishi perked up suddenly. "Sae-san said that they sell all kinds of Western imports in Yokohama. Food, clothes, books. All kinds of things."

Tomoe arched an eyebrow and smiled minutely. "How much have you been spending at the Akabeko lately, Enishi?"

"What?" Enishi scowled, but Kenshin didn't miss the slight reddening of his cheeks either. "None. What kind of- why are you-?" He shook his head abruptly and gestured to Tomoe's half-eaten porridge. "Finish your breakfast, Neechan."

A hint of a smile ghosted across Yukishiro-san's lips, but he busied himself with the newspaper.

A few days later, Tomoe shut herself in the kitchen with Otetsudai-san and devoted the next several days to learning how to make a very delicate and complex sweet called monaka.

"The red bean paste filling isn't the tricky part," she explained to Kenshin, while also barring him from the kitchen. "It's getting the wafers just so."

"I want to shape them like chrysanthemums. Or cherry blossoms." Kaoru giggled. "Or maybe like my pet chickens."

Kaoru, unlike Kenshin or any of the men in the household, had been invited to join Tomoe in this endeavor, as Tomoe had reasoned that the little girl should already have been learning how to cook something and she very likely wasn't getting much practice in her father's house.

Kamiya-san had shrugged that off, almost cheerfully. "She's getting kenjutsu practice. Our housekeeper is far more competent in the kitchen than I am, and she prefers to be left to her own devices."

"I can help…" Kenshin had offered, though he could already tell it was a losing proposition.

Tomoe frowned slightly. "Go train Kenichi. Bond with Hiko-san."

And that was that.

"Your wife has your life well planned out," Hiko snorted. "Come along; there are some things I'd like to teach your son, and I need someone to demonstrate them on."

And that was that.

They ended up with an abundance of monaka, and while none were shaped like anyone's pet chickens, they were in a variety of pleasing flower shapes.

"I gave a box to Otetsudai-san to take home," Tomoe explained over dinner with the Kamiya family. "We have so much of it, and it did take her days to teach us."

"My fingers are only a little bit singed." Kaoru grinned and held up her hands for evidence.

"Only a little bit," Kamiya-san agreed. "Not bad for your first time in the kitchen."

"If we have so much of it," Enishi said absently, "maybe I can take a box over to the Akabeko? Sae-san has tomorrow evening off."

"Your son's memorized the young lady's work schedule." Hiko eyed Yukishiro-san and chuckled. "I take it you approve of this match?"

"I didn't say that!" Enishi looked moments from flinging his entire dinner tray in Hiko's direction.

"No, you didn't say that," Yukishiro-san agreed over his rice bowl. "You didn't need to."

Kenshin smiled into his miso soup.

"She works at a restaurant," Enishi protested. "They're always looking for new dishes. I just thought I'd…" Abruptly he picked up his rice bowl and shoveled a heap into his mouth.

"Enishi likes Sae-san," Kaoru sang, and Kenichi giggled.

"There's enough left for us to bring a box to Yumi-san," Tomoe offered. Quite demurely, but Kenshin didn't miss the way her cheeks tinged ever-so-slightly. "She and her girls will love it."

"Tomorrow then," Kenshin agreed. "Let's bring them a box tomorrow."

The next morning, though, Kenichi did not rise as usual - right as the sun came up - and instead burrowed more deeply into his futon when Kenshin and Tomoe leaned over to check on him.

"I don't feel well, Kaachan," he murmured. "Too much monaka."

A hand to Kenichi's forehead confirmed that he was feverishly hot, and only moments later, Enishi was out the door to fetch the family doctor - a genial older man by the name of Genzai.

"It's not a dangerous fever," the elderly man reported after a quick but thorough examination. "Have him drink plenty of cooled tea and keep him in his futon until his fever has been gone for at least a full day." He smiled encouragingly at Tomoe. "And he's very likely to need extra attention from you while he's there."

Kenichi snaked a little hand out from under the blanket, latching onto a bit of Tomoe's sleeping yukata.

"Of course, Genzai-sensei," Tomoe murmured, stroking Kenichi's hair back from his sweaty forehead. "Thank you very much."

They spent much of the day near Kenichi's futon as the boy drifted in and out of sleep. At one point, Kenichi climbed out of his futon and latched onto Kenshin - sitting at the hearth - eyes fever bright and expression dazed.

"Not tired, Touchan."

Kenshin tucked his only son back into the futon, and then spent a long time sitting by his side, watching as he drifted back to sleep.

The next morning, the fever had broken, but Kenichi was very sluggish, and Tomoe was not at all ready to let him stray far from his futon.

"You should bring the monaka to Yumi-san," she said softly to Kenshin, her hand resting on Kenichi's chest to feel his temperature and heartbeat. "It will spoil if you don't. And please give her my best."

"We'll look after Kenichi while you're gone," Hiko said gruffly. He hadn't moved out of sight of Kenichi's futon since the fever had begun. "Don't worry."

"We'll find some way to pass the time, I'm certain." Yukishiro-san knelt down at the futon, large book in hand.

"Is that the philosophy of Jingozaemon?" Tomoe looked at him. "Or Doushun?"

"Doushun." Yukishiro-san opened the book. "We wouldn't want to start him on anything that was too complex."

"Bedtime stories," Enishi said. "You used to read Doushun to us as bedtime stories. Put me right to sleep."

The smallest of frowns crossed Yukishiro-san's mouth, but then Enishi added:

"'To know fully what the term 'companion' means is to first know how a companion ought to act.'" Enishi nodded solemnly. "'And how do we best understand what a companion is? Do we look upon the word with the detachment of a scholar or with the engagement of a poet?'" He shrugged. "Doushun never actually provided the answer though."

Hiko laughed heartily at that and clapped Yukishiro-san on the shoulder. "You ought to be pleased. Your son's so much of a scholar that he can learn in his sleep."

Tomoe bent her head, hiding the smile that flitted across her face.

"I wouldn't want to interrupt the philosophizing." Kenshin stood. "I'll bring the monaka to Yumi-dono, and when I return, maybe Kenichi can tell me how much Doushun he's memorized."

Once again, Kenshin bundled up in his warmest clothing, but he didn't flag a rickshaw down to take him to Yoshiwara.

After being in the house for a few days, he rather relished the long walk, despite the frigid air and hard-packed ground. By the time he passed under Yoshiwara's imposing gate, however, he was ready to warm up by the hearth with some tea.

Yoshiwara in daylight was a sleepier place, though the shop owners and food stall proprietors called out to him as he walked by.

"Himura-san, good morning!"

"Hanahomura-dono had a busy evening, Himura-san! She might not be awake yet!"

"Himura-san, come have some tea! It will warm you right up."

Well.

He couldn't resist the offer, and he ended up sitting with the Obasan and a few of her early-morning customers for some time. And if he let her ply him with a roasted sweet potato, well - it was a very warming sweet potato.

By the time he got to the Hanakotoba, residents of the district were out and about, running their morning errands.

A knock on the door summoned a girl who looked as though she'd only just rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She smiled at him in recognition and accepted his offer of a coin, and she returned in a moment with the Hanakotoba's Okaasan.

"You keep a much earlier set of hours than we do, Himura-san," she said as she welcomed him in. "But where is your wife? You don't generally come here without her unless you've been getting into trouble." Her elegant eyes narrowed. "You haven't been getting into trouble again, have you?"

His eyes widened slightly at that - as if he were suddenly fifteen years old again, self-conscious and occasionally tongue-tied.

"No. In fact, I've been…" He cleared his throat. "I've been keeping my 'young nose clean', as you directed."

"Your handsome young nose," she corrected him with a still-disapproving smile. She gestured for tea with an imperious wave of her hand, and the girl who had answered the door obediently hurried off to fetch it. "As many of my girls would be only too happy to remind you."

"Um."

He was a grown man in his twenties, and yet he felt ridiculous. He searched for a proper response to Okaasan and ended up nearly pushing the box of monaka into her hands.

"I brought monaka. That my wife made. For everyone." He cleared his throat. "I brought monaka that my wife made."

A sudden chorus of giggling behind him made him turn to see a trio of girls in hanten, clearly ready to embark on their morning errands.

"You're so sweet, Himura-oniisan," one of them said with a shy smile. The others giggled madly and nudged one another. "And handsome," she added with a furious blush before hurrying out the door.

"There." Okaasan nodded, her eyes twinkling. "What did I tell you?"

Mercifully, the tea arrived at that moment.

"Now." Okaasan picked up her cup and gestured for him to take his. "About your wife?"

Two cups of tea and a warm bowl of rice topped with fish roe later, Kenshin felt quite warm and satiated and Okaasan was apparently satisfied with what news he had to share.

"Well then." The older woman set down her teacup without a sound and stood, smoothing her kimono. "I believe that's given Hanahomura ample time to prepare herself for you." The door beside her slid open as if on cue to reveal Kanomo and Konomo, who stood there with their characteristic beaming smiles.

"Come on, then, Oniisan!" Kanomo grabbed him by the sleeve of his kimono and escorted him up the stairs and along the now-familiar corridors.

Konomo skipped along the corridor ahead of them. "Oneechan wants to see you!"

"Oneechan entertained Murasaki-sama and his friends at the Tengoku Teahouse last night," Kanomo explained. "And they were there forever."

"And then Murasaki-sama was here forever." Konomo stopped in front of Yumi's room and pulled an exaggerated face. "We thought he'd never leave."

Kenshin didn't quite know how to respond to any of that, but luckily neither girl seemed to expect a response out of him anyway.

Konomo tapped her fingers against the elaborately-painted fusuma before sliding it open. "Oneechan, Himura-oniisan is finally done with two cups of tea, a bowl of rice, and a very long interview with Okaasan."

Kanomo giggled behind her sleeve.

The cushions and tea trays had already been laid out, and in the center of the room was Yumi, sitting regally in a kimono of plain - but obviously very expensive - sea-green. As always, her hair was casually piled atop her head and her face bore no paint. And, as always, she smiled to see him.

"Himura-san." She rose smoothly to her knees in greeting and beckoned to him. "Waking up to you is always a pleasure."

Both girls giggled behind their respective sleeves.

Kenshin cleared his throat and stepped over the threshold. "Yumi-dono." He held out the box of monaka. "Tomoe regrets that she couldn't be here today, but she did send me with snacks."

"I'd heard." She smiled gently. "And while I do hope to see her next time, it's been some time since I had you all to myself."

"This is true…" He handed over the box before easing the sword from his belt and seating himself on the cushion. "Though last time you-"

He caught himself before he could say 'had me all to yourself'.

"-saw me without Tomoe, I had paid a visit to Saigo Takamori. Hardly the most auspicious of our meetings."

Behind them, Kanomo and Konomo quietly slid the fusuma closed, leaving Kenshin and Yumi in the room alone.

"Oh, Himura-san?" Yumi's smile quirked up at one corner. She eased open the box of monaka and sat elegantly back on her knees. "And which one of our meetings was the most auspicious?"

Kenshin raised an eyebrow. "No matter how I answer that, you'll find a way to turn it back on me somehow."

Yumi's eyes gleamed, her lopsided smile never faltering in the slightest. "But you'll answer anyway, won't you? If only just to see?"

"No." He tried to glower at her, which proved to be impossible. "You're far too clever for me to keep up with."

"Oh?" she said again, arching one perfect eyebrow. "I think we can keep one another up perfectly well."

"Yumi-dono." The name came out as a groan, and Kenshin decided to pour and serve the tea to the both of them. The better to not have to make eye contact for a moment. "I just got here. Go easy on me, please."

"You're flattering me," she laughed with evident pleasure. "I must be the only person in the world who's ever made you say that."

Head bent, Kenshin slid the teacup gently across the tray toward Yumi and looked up at her through a curtain of hair.

"Perhaps."

"Apart from Tomoe-san, of course," she said just as he'd taken a sip of his own tea. She appeared as delighted as ever with the results of her handiwork.

"You're not being at all fair," he rasped. At least the tea hadn't dribbled out of his nose or onto his kimono. He gestured toward the open box of monaka. "Try one. Please."

"Why, Himura-san," Yumi giggled. "Are you trying to bribe me into accepting your surrender?" She leaned over, plucking a single pastry from the box without taking her eyes off of his. "That's hardly fair, is it?"

"Eat the monaka." Kenshin set the teacup down on the tray with a click. "Tomoe will not be best pleased if I don't report back on how you liked the monaka."

"Oh, very well." She pouted exaggeratedly before taking a bite. The look on her face told him everything he needed to know about how she liked Tomoe's culinary skills.

"I didn't bring a diary to record your exact reaction," Kenshin said with a small smile. "But I do think I can tell Tomoe you enjoyed it."

"I believe you can," she replied easily. "Besides, Tomoe-san's the diarist, not you." She smiled and took another bite of the monaka.

"By the by," she said after a moment. "I can't help but notice you're wearing your hair differently."

Kenshin picked up his teacup and took a sip. "Well, I didn't want to appear 'feminine' and 'unseemly' in the eyes of the Western nations, now did I?"

She laughed softly. "Not following the edict, either. What will people say?"

"I'm not a samurai, nor do I work for the government in any capacity." Kenshin shrugged. "Perhaps the edict doesn't apply to me."

"I think you're the sort of man who can decide which edicts apply to him and which don't," she replied with a small smile. "A rare sort of man, indeed."

"Apparently I'm the sort of man who can't seem to keep his 'handsome, young nose' clean." He smiled over his teacup. "Okaasan's words, not mine."

"Oh?" Yumi's smile became mischievous once more. "Did she happen to mention any of the rest of you?"

"No." Kenshin narrowed his eyes, though there was no real heat behind the expression. "I'm quite unremarkable."

She hummed and shook her head no, her eyes twinkling and that small smile tugging the corners of her mouth upward.

"Fine." He rolled his eyes and set his cup down on the tray. "She might have mentioned my height once or twice, which she attributes to my not eating enough, which," he took a breath, "is why she watched me eat an entire bowl of rice with roe before I was allowed to come upstairs."

He frowned thoughtfully.

"Maybe that's why the Obasan down the street gave me a roasted sweet potato."

Yumi laughed delightedly. "Everyone in this district loves you, Himura-san. That ought to be obvious by now. And it's only natural for people who love you to want to look after your well-being by making sure you're eating enough."

She very pointedly put a piece of monaka in front of him.

He picked it up and took a bite without meeting her eyes. It was very good. Of course it was. Tomoe had made it, and set aside the best ones for Yumi.

As one did for people they loved.

"Last night was a very long and busy night," Yumi said after a few moments' silence. "I didn't make it into my futon until dawn."

Kenshin nodded, keeping his expression neutral. "Kanomo-chan and Konomo-chan told me that Murasaki had quite the party at the Tengoku Teahouse."

"Oh yes," Yumi replied, refilling their teacups with perfectly practiced ease. "It was quite the occasion." She set down the teapot and looked across at him. "He offered to marry me."

Kenshin stilled at that, monaka halfway to his mouth.

"Ah."

This was, he reminded himself, exactly what Yumi had wanted. It was her best-case scenario, better than Murasaki's continued patronage. It was her way out of debt, and out of Yoshiwara, all together.

It was a good thing, and so he forced himself to smile and say:

"It seems as if congratulations are in order, Yumi-dono."

"I wouldn't say that." Yumi's half-smile was still in place, but it seemed to have faded from her eyes. "I didn't accept his proposal."

The obvious question was on the tip of Kenshin's tongue, but he said nothing. He would accept whatever Yumi chose to share with him, and he wouldn't push for details.

"His offer to me was a fair one," she went on in a matter-of-fact tone, her eyes now flat. "But it didn't include any provisions for Kanomo and Konomo." She sighed. "I would have had to leave them here."

"Ah," he said softly, setting the half-eaten monaka down.

He remembered - with a fierceness that bordered on actual, physical pain - how difficult it had been to walk away from his newborn son to return to the war. How he knew, with every step he took toward Kyoto, how much he would forfeit by being away.

How every small moment he managed to snatch in his too-short visits home simply reminded him of how much he was missing every single day.

"An impossible ask," he finally said, meeting her eyes.

"Completely," she acknowledged with a single nod. The smile crept back into her eyes, if only slightly. "I knew you'd understand."

She held his eyes for a long moment before rising to her feet in a single elegant motion. She walked unhurriedly across the room to the shoji and slid it noiselessly aside to let in the frigid morning air.

He joined her after a moment, taking in a lungful of the bracing cold and looking down to the street, at the peddlers and shoppers going about their business.

"And now?" His breath made wispy cloud-puffs.

"Now?" She took a deep breath and let it out in an equally deep sigh, the steam drifting away on the slight breeze. "Now I return to the beginning. Find a new patron, attempt to whittle away at my debt, and provide for my girls as best I can."

She slid her arms into her sleeves, hugging her own midsection, and looked out with steady eyes over the street.

"I've been here before." A barely-perceptible note of weariness came into her voice. "At least it's familiar ground."

That old urge bubbled up inside Kenshin once again - to ask Yumi to run away with him, to grab Kanomo and Konomo and flee Yoshiwara, away from debts and contracts and servitude, to flee all the way to Mount Atago where no one would dare come for them, and if anyone were foolish enough to try anyway, they would have to make that attempt through him.

He allowed himself a moment to indulge the fantasy before it dissipated on the frosted air.

Yumi had not asked to be rescued.

He took a steadying breath before he spoke. "Anyone would be lucky to have you in their company."

She turned her head to face him, a hint of sadness in her smile. "I can say the same thing about you, Himura-san."

"No." He shook his head. "You are unique, Yumi-dono. Any man would be fortunate to have you as his wife." He frowned. "Murasaki is poorer for his short-sighted decision."

She offered a brief exhalation in response - a single humorless laugh that managed to convey a world of meaning. "Murasaki-sama can easily find himself a new accessory." She moved aside, turning to look out over the street once more. "But where would anyone find a man to replace you?"

"He cannot," Kenshin said, perhaps a bit more sharply than intended. "And if he thought of you as a mere accessory, then he was very foolish, indeed."

As for her question…

"And myself?" He shook his head. "The only skill I have to offer comes from a sword. But you…"

She stepped behind him suddenly and wrapped her arms around him.

"You have so much more to offer than that." Her voice was a fevered whisper in his ear, and her arms had a surprising strength as they clutched him. "So much more than that… Kenshin."

He stilled at that.

Her breath was hot against his ear, her hands flat against his chest, and she had said his name with such intimacy that he wasn't sure how the people in the street below them simply continued to go about their business.

He swallowed. "Yumi-dono…"

She pressed up against his back, hugging him tightly against her. She had hooked her chin over his shoulder and her smooth, soft cheek rested against the side of his own face.

"You could never lift a sword again and you'd still be a good man," she whispered passionately. "The best man I've ever known."

"No…" he managed, and he wasn't quite certain which part of her statement he was even replying to or if it mattered at all.

Another swallow. His throat felt very parched suddenly, and he attempted to say Yumi's name again, but the words stuck in his throat somewhere.

"You've never behaved like any other swordsman I've ever met," she murmured. A single strand of her hair, loosened from the careless pile on top of her head, brushed feather-light against his face. "You never embraced the violence. You never acted as though you enjoyed it." She breathed in and out once, deeply, and then Kenshin felt her cheek move against his in an unmistakable smile.

"It's even in your name," she whispered. "'Kenshin'. Your heart is just as important as your sword."

His heart fluttered against her palms.

Despite the chill of the winter air, warmth flooded his face and stole down his neck, creeping under his kimono and spreading throughout his body, and then suddenly he was too hot. The room itself had become stifling.

He remembered to breathe.

"We should…" he started, but didn't know how to finish the thought. Her arms tightened around him as though to keep him there, to prevent him from moving even the slightest distance away from her.

"Do you remember those evenings during the war?" Her voice was low, practically hypnotic, and carried a tinge of almost fervent nostalgia. "When you and I and Shishio-san would sit up late into the night?"

So long ago.

"When we would talk and drink sake and play hanafuda cards," she continued, "and do our best to close out the world outside our doors?"

Years in the past.

"Brief respites," he murmured.

Memories blurred and softened by too many bottles of sake - most of it far more expensive than he or Shishio could have ever afforded on their own - those most rare evenings had been fleeting intervals between the bloodshed, and the beckoning madness, and the absolute promise of death for anyone who would be misfortunate enough to face him the next evening.

"Temporary refuges," he added.

"Sometimes I wonder." Her voice had fallen to an intimate whisper. He could feel a sudden heat radiating from her face where it touched his, eclipsing even the warmth he had thought overwhelming only a moment beforehand. "What might have happened if one of us had found the courage to..."

She paused, and he could feel the muscles in her neck tighten as she swallowed.

"To take it further."

"Further…?" he echoed.

"Do you remember the night we had all drunk so much?" Her voice had a slight smile in it. "When we were all so relaxed, and we were sitting so close together?"

A hazy memory swam to the surface of his mind, shimmering in front of him.

"We lost count of the empty bottles," he said quietly. "Your girls were so quick to take them away, so quick to replenish them, and we weren't keeping track at all…"

"And there was a feeling in the air that we were on the threshold of something." She drew a breath close beside his ear. "Something important. Something monumental, but something none of us could name."

The room had been just as stifling that night. Maybe more so, with the three of them in one small room and their heads humming with warm sake. Yumi had set her instruments aside, and the hanafuda cards had long been forgotten.

The room had been so warm…

"I used to wonder what that was," she breathed. "And if a moment like that might ever come again."

Heads had ended up resting in laps, fingers carding lazily through locks of unbound hair, and there had been laughter - so preciously rare in those days - and murmured conversation that had flowed as easily and freely as the sake.

"An uncommon evening," he murmured.

"We were all uncommonly comfortable," she replied with a soft whisper of laughter. "You lying back with your head in my lap, and Shishio-san with his head in yours. I never would have believed it."

"You seem to remember it quite well." A hesitant, almost nostalgia-tinged smile tugged at the corners of Kenshin's mouth. "Our last evening together."

She nestled her chin into his shoulder in response. "I've thought about it many times since that night."

He could feel her breath warm against his skin. Gooseflesh rose on his neck as she breathed in again, her nose and lips delicately brushing against him.

"If any of us had dared," she whispered. "If I had dared…"

She pressed herself more tightly against him, so tightly that he could feel the beating of her heart against the back of his shoulder. So tightly that he could feel her body swell with every breath she took. So tightly that he fancied he could even feel the blood rushing through her veins.

His breath hitched.

"Yumi-dono…"

Gently, he lifted his hands and placed them over hers. Her skin was smooth and silky-soft under his callused palms, her fingers long and slender. He took a breath and turned around-

-and stepped backward.

"Yumi-dono," he said again, watching - letting - her hands drop to her sides. Letting his own hands do the same. "I am so thankful that I get the privilege of knowing you."

Something dimmed in Yumi's eyes, a look of knowing resignation replacing the sparkle, but Kenshin forced himself to take a breath and continue speaking:

"... and so is Tomoe."

It was impossible for him not to notice the flash of guilt that darted into her gaze at the mention of Tomoe's name.

"She treasures your friendship more than I know how to put into words," he said gently.

Something shifted in Yumi's eyes at that moment. They widened - indeed, they practically glowed - as if with a sudden inspiration. But an instant later, a sort of daring, almost hungry hope flooded into them.

"So go and get her." She never took her eyes off of his, her pupils wide and her lips slightly parted. "I'll be here."

"Okay," he said automatically, followed instantly by, "Wait." His eyes widened. "What?"

Yumi smiled suddenly, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "You agreed." She looked pleased with herself. "I'll hold you to that."

"I…" Kenshin shook his head. "I'm not sure what I…" He shook his head. "Yumi-dono…"

"Oh dear," she said with a mock pout, though there was a daring glint in her still-smiling eyes. "And now you're hoping to talk your way out of it." She shook her head with clearly feigned regret. "I'm afraid that's out of the question."

"I…" He sighed and abruptly pinched the bridge of his nose, a habit he had thought he left behind in the war. "I don't even…"

She laughed, stepped forward, and pressed a quick kiss to the corner of his mouth.

"I treasure the pair of you as well, you know," she said with a smile that seemed to hold a world of meanings. "More than I know how to put into words." Her smile turned suddenly impish. "Though I can think of several ways to show it."

Kenshin thought about that last comment the entire way home.


NOTE THE FIRST
I LIVE! Here, have a little update. As a treat.

So... this story is not abandoned, kids. I appreciate the concerned messages I've received over the past several months. I've been very busy. The good kind of busy, but busy all the same, and while I do have a couple of chapters backlogged to post, this has never been the kind of story that I can bang out in a few hours and be satisfied with.

This chapter and the next one wrap up the Edo Arc, btw, and then we're moving onto the next arc. We'll also be getting another POV in the next arc. Right now, we've only seen the story unfold from Kenshin, Tomoe, or Hiko's points of view, but there's another character who has something to say and they feel pretty ready to say it. (No, it's not Shishio. Because Shishio is DEAD.)

NOTE THE SECOND
The Yokohama Mainichi (which I translated as 'Yokohama Daily News'), the random poem that Papa Yukishiro busted out from memory, and the Iwakura Mission were all real things. (Of course. Because that's how I roll.)

The newspaper was indeed Japan's first for-realsies newspaper. It was also the first to use lead-typing, which was apparently a very exciting thing in the journalism world, but not something I feel passionately enough about to do anything but the most cursory of google searches. Let's just all agree that it was a GOOD THING.

The poem about the Black Ships was written by an anonymous poet who had very strong feelings about Japan being forcibly opened at gunpoint, and so this person posted the poem all over the place in Edo. Nascent gonzo journalism and searing political commentary at its most Japanese.

The Iwakura Mission was exactly everything Katsura said it was supposed to be. It took about two years, they visited the US, the UK, several European countries, Egypt, and several Asian countries. Long ass trip that did not accomplish their stated goal of BALANCING UNBALANCED TREATIES, but did absolutely kick Japan into HIGH GEAR in terms of breakneck modernization. It was considered an extremely significant and highly influential trip, and also, the public all around the world followed the trip like people today might follow celebrity news. (Katsura is Kim Kardashian, obvs.)

Also, four teenage girls and a 6 year old girl stayed in the US to be educated, then came back and did awesome shit like found a prestigious women's university that is still in operation today. Fuck yeah.

NOTE THE THIRD
I told myself that today's cultural notes would be short, but lol. Anyway, my inbox has been reset to zero, so FILL IT UP AGAIN! I want to hear from all of you.